Ten Tips for Non-Fiction Writing

The internet age is a non-fiction writers’ paradise. 20 years ago, we might have needed to go to the local library, the local university, and even a major book repository like the British library, to do research. Nowadays, much of our material can be accessed on our smartphone if we have a solid wi-fi connection. But although we can gain easier access to sources, the art of writing non-fiction itself has changed little. Here are the best ways to maximize your non-fiction writing experience.

  1. Plan, plan, and plan again. You are going to spend a lot of time looking for sources and reading material. Not to mind writing the blasted thing! Zeroing in on what you are going to write saves time and focuses your attention. Spend at least a month planning and try to condense your plan into an easy to understand paragraph so that you know your idea is strong.
  2. Do you have enough material? An obvious one, but imagine you have this great plan but no way to execute? A quick online search will tell you if you’re chasing a fool’s errand although if you are conducting primary research you may need to contact universities or institutes.
  3. Do you have too much matetial? A not so obvious one. We are so used to seeing our generic experts and authorities effortlessly discourse on their new publication, we think they must have read everything. They may even unconsciously say things like “I have looked at all the facts.” What they mean to say is that they have looked at all the facts relevant to their subject, and that means they have tightly defined what they need and unlikely to use more than that.
  4. A theme is a trunk. Remember I said you need a strong idea? By this I mean that you need a powerful theme. The theme is the trunk of your book tree. The evidence, theories, arguments, etc … are the branches, or even the roots as they support your theme. You need a strong theme because that carries the weight of your book.
  5. Editing: No pain, no gain. What you’ve written is so good, you made such a good point, and its so imaginatively framed. But does it support the trunk? Or is it going deeper than you need to go? If it doesn’t do the first, cut it; if it does the second, relegate it to a footnote. I know it’s painful but …
  6. Less is more. We all have fond memories of a 600 page history book we had when we were young, with old black & white photos (or at least if you went on to write non-fiction, you did). So we want to get up to at least 400 pages with our manuscript. Don’t think like this. A 100 page book that’s tightly argued is better than a loose 400 page book. Sometimes we need 400 pages but the fact is that many large books are boring in parts and lose their readers, although they may still be of good quality. But you don’t want a reader to say “I liked this, but not that.” You want them to be consistently intrigued. 
  7. Short chapters or sections. Chapters, or even sections, help readers digest what they are reading. If you need long chapters, then have lots of short sections. It even helps the writer to focus. 
  8. Quotes. While doing your research, you come across a quote that absolutely nails it. You come across 50 more that absolutely nail it. However, resist temptation. This is your book. It’s about what you think based on what you’ve studied. As a default, try not to use quotes unless necessary.
  9. Formatting quotes. Following on from the last point, as a default never use block quotes. Instead of a separate paragraph with one quote, try to cite it in the paragraph with ” ” around it. Use block quotes where the quote is long, flows seamlessly from your paragraph, and is not difficult to decipher (unless you are making the point that someone was a cryptic writer).
  10. Tell your story. Most importantly, remember you’re a storyteller. You are no different to a fiction author in that regard. Read your book out loud and change tack if its not interesting. People buy books to hear a voice and proof of that is the growth in audiobooks. Perhaps even picture yourself in front of a fire!

I have just published my 5th non-fiction book and hope this advice was of use.

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